Suzanne Cucchetti has used German to build a career spanning two continents
For Suzanne Cucchetti, teaching German wasn’t a decision.
It was a calling.
While in school, Cucchetti was thumbing through a book of possible college majors, trying to figure out what to do with her life. She finally asked God for guidance.
“Look down,” a voice in her head told her. She did, and read the first line that she saw: “high school German teacher.”
In the years since that moment, those four words have led her on a series of adventures spanning two continents.
For two months, she studied at the Goethe Institute in Germany while in college. It was her first time in the European country. “I hated it,” she said.
But later, her senior seminar professor at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, convinced her to apply for a Fulbright fellowship.
For that, she had to fill out a 40-page application and endure a three-hour interview in both English and German. On her 22nd birthday, she received word that she’s been awarded the fellowship.
Armed with a double major in secondary education and German and a pair of minors in English as a second language and ethnic studies, she returned to Germany the September following her college graduation after substitute teaching math for a semester at Grand Junction High School.
This time her experience in Germany was much more positive.
“In the Fulbright world, I’m actually considered a Halfbright,” she said with a laugh. By that, she explained that instead of writing a paper, she taught 15 hours a week as a foreign language assistant in a town named Greifswald, a city in former East Germany. Her job was to teach English as a foreign language.
“It was the weirdest teaching job ever,” Cucchetti said. She described how she would teach about the social implications of music to 13th-graders, and then ride her bike to the grade school where she would work with the first-graders on their ABCs.
The teaching staff at both schools trusted her with their students. “As soon as they realized I was a teacher, it was ‘coffee hour!’ and they were gone.”
But it was the townsfolk that made the difference for Cucchetti.
“The people were unbelievable. I fell in love with the German people,” she said.
Having lived under Soviet domination for so long, the attitude among the area’s population was one of friendliness, and they concentrated on helping each other out, she said.
“Everyone is there for everyone else,” she said. “You are friends with them for life.”
Cucchetti also has taught German in two inner-city schools in Chicago. Before she graduated from college, she student taught in an International Baccalaureate program at Lincoln Park High School, a magnet school. But when she returned to the United States from Greifswald, her second stint of teaching in Chicago was very different.
“It was the antithesis of Lincoln Park,” Cucchetti commented. Corliss High School was a ghetto school that had been placed on probation when she arrived.
The principal had heard that German was the second language of the business world, so she was hired to build the school’s German program from the ground up.
The first year, she taught only German 1; the second year, she taught German 1 and 2. By her fourth and last year at the school, she was teaching German 1, 2, 3 and 4.
The entire German program at Corliss was cut two years after she left to return to the Grand Valley.
At Grand Junction High School, Cucchetti’s classroom is decorated in colorful full-sized flags from various German-speaking countries.
Cucchetti’s vibrant personality makes it easy for her to bond with her students, using humor and an unusual approach to language education.
This year, she’s expanded her teaching style to one of immersion in the language. Even in her German 1 class, she mingles only a small amount of English when necessary with primarily German as she guides her students into understanding the language. The first-year students follow her speaking in dual languages with ease.
There’s a reason for them to be able to understand the language.
In both 2007 and 2009, she shepherded groups of students to Germany on an exchange program she works on along with fellow Grand Junction High School German teacher Ralph Wahlers, who started the program.
That’s when she saw all the hard work pay off.
Upon arrival in Germany each time, the students clung to her.
“My biggest memory is watching them figure it out,” she said of the three-week trips.
“You want to hear them speaking the language and stepping outside their comfort zone.” On both trips she’s witnessed this transformation. By the end of the trips, the students were conversing with the residents in the language.
“Each time (we’ve) heard them talking to people on the train in German,” she said.
One year, the group traveled to Salzburg, Austria. It was a hot day. Cucchetti and Wahlers took the students to Hellbrunn Castle, which features an unusual water park complete with water cannons.
The students and their teachers found themselves sharing the tour with a group of old German ladies.
“One of the ladies grabbed one of the girls and used her as a human shield,” Cucchetti said. “The kids had a great time. They’re out of the drama of high school — out of their element — and you really get to know them as who they are.”
Another Salzburg adventure with the exchange program was a “Sound of Music” tour. Cucchetti rewarded a student each day for their involvement with chocolate.
“I have this awesome picture of Caleb Ealey re-enacting Maria,” she said of a photo showing the students doing a Von Trapp family “Do-Re-Mi” pose on stairs at Salzburg’s Mirabel Gardens. Caleb earned the chocolate for that day.
With travel, though, not every adventure is necessarily good, especially when bad weather causes flight delays and cancellations.
On the way home from a 2007 trip, their plane was delayed in Germany. The group missed their connection in Philadelphia, which was reeling from a two-day rainstorm. Cucchetti and her students stood in line for three hours, trying to book a new flight back to Denver.
“We had people flipping out around us,” she said. A French woman barged ahead of the group of students in line. Another foreign traveler ranted that then-President Bush was to blame for the delays.
The teenagers were stoic by comparison. “Those kids were perfect angels,” she said.
When they finally reached the counter, they discovered they were out of luck.
“We knew we were delayed, but we didn’t realize we’d missed ALL the flights to Denver.”
The group was stranded in the airport for the night.
“I’d been awake for two days. I had all these children I was responsible for,” she said as she described their situation.
“There were no hotels. Nothing was open for food. If I was traveling alone, it would have been my worst nightmare.
“Instead, I had 14 people’s children I was responsible for, so it was beyond my worst nightmare.”
She and her students found a corner in the terminal and “did the whole circle the wagons thing.” They slept where they could.
The next morning, she found a flight to Denver with room for everyone in the group.
Perhaps that was another example of heavenly intervention in her life.
Cucchetti has found another calling in her life these days. She’s on the vestry of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church and is involved in Daughters of the King, a group that dedicates their time to prayer. Now she has another project.
“There was no women’s group,” she said, adding that the church had an active group for men. “So I finally stepped up and said, ‘OK, let’s have this group.’ ” She talked to other women in the church and received an enthusiastic response.
“I jokingly — JOKINGLY — said we should call ourselves WWJD — Wine, Women, Jesus and Dessert,” she said. “They loved it.”
Years after being guided to her life’s path by four simple words, her close relationship with God is still important to her.
“We get to talk to God every day,” she says of her faith. “We don’t have to, we get to.”
The adventures in her life have taught her another lesson.
“I think that’s what life is; whatever comes next, you are prepared for it by what has happened in the past,” she said.